Santayana's maxim that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it comes repeatedly and chillingly to the forefront as one watches this impeccably well researched and riveting documentary about immigration, social unrest, activism and, dare we say it, domestic terrorism--close to, incredibly, 100 years ago. Two Italian immigrants, neither particularly poor, came to America chasing dreams of greater wealth and glory only to be met by the dingy reality that so many of their ilk faced--near constant bigotry from those who had already arrived, both figuratively and literally. Masterfully recreating the era in which the "crime" and trial took place, while at the same time showing parallels to our current milieu, Sacco and Vanzetti is a thought-provoking and surprisingly emotional experience.
Sacco and Vanzetti were not mere innocents, as some have alleged, though they might be termed (as others were in a later dark age of American politics) "fellow travelers" rather than primary instigators in what was a major sociopolitical movement of the early 20th century: anarchism. Both are revealed to be profound intellectuals and touchingly eloquent writers, well-voiced by Tony Shalhoub (Sacco) and John Turturro (Vanzetti), in texts taken from their letters to family and friends while imprisoned.
The film is less about the actual innocence or guilt of the pair (though the filmmakers' conclusion in this regard is hardly a secret), but more about the process of justice (or lack thereof) that these two self-admitted radicals faced due to the tenor of the times. Featuring a host of incredible interviews with relatives of those affected by the case (including Sacco's niece and the daughter of the paymaster whom the pair were accused of murdering), as well as various historians, and filled with well-chosen archival stills and film, including several segments from the 1971 feature film of the same name, Sacco and Vanzetti manages what few documentaries achieve--to touch us, at times deeply, while teaching us.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles with the finished product--though director Peter Miller in one of the extras states that a college student thanked him for the clips of Guantanamo late in the film (the student evidently was previously unaware of our government's offshore "holding cells"--one weeps for the current state of education), I personally felt the Ashcroft section was a bit heavy-handed and Miller's point already obvious (at least to any of us who have read the paper or seen the news since September 11, 2001); I would have preferred knowing what happened to some of the major players after the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti--what, for instance, became of Sacco's wife and children (though this is covered briefly in a text F.A.Q., one of the DVD's extras), or, less importantly perhaps, the blue-blooded and xenophobic Judge Thayer? It is a testament to the film's power, though, that I am moved to find out more information about this unassuming pair who became such unexpected symbols for so many.